On Labor Day, a week after Hurricane Katrina struck, New Orleans has turned into Copville. The city is filled with national guardsmen, federal agents, state troopers, border patrolmen, and police officers from across the nation. They're heavily armed and paranoid and glowering at anyone not in a uniform. With exquisite understatement, NPR producer Anne Hawke says, "There's a lot of male energy in the city right now."
Fresh-faced guardsmen with M-16s at the ready march down Tchoupitoulas Street near my old haunt, Frankie and Johnny's. Guardsmen stand watch in front of the looted Brooks Brothers on Canal Street. Guardsmen have "secured" the Audubon Zoo. We see sandbagged machine-gun emplacements on the green lawn in front of the entrance gates. Who, exactly, are they prepared to repel — a mob of looters storming the World of Primates to barbecue the gibbons?
It gets weirder.
A pickup drives around downtown, full of people wearing yellow T-shirts emblazoned with "Scientology Volunteer Minister" and handing out strange little booklets titled The Way to Happiness.
Across the river in Jefferson Parish, which had less storm damage than Orleans Parish, some residents have already begun repairing their houses — if they can find a contractor. "Right now, if you gimme two Bourbon Street strippers and a roofer," says a wag at a Gretna café, "I'll keep the roofer."
The masses at the convention center are gone. What's left behind looks like a uniquely American refugee camp. I peer through the windows of the padlocked halls into a sea of empty packages on the foul carpet: Microwave Zesty Barbecue Meal, Ocean Spray cranberry juice, Kraft marshmallows, Lay's Classic Potato Chips, Planters peanuts, Tropicana orange juice, Kellogg's Corn Flakes, Nestea, Cheez-Its, Hawaiian Punch, Otis Spunkmeyer brownies. Consumer loyalty survives even in the darkest of times. There are thousands of empty wine and liquor bottles and, everywhere, pairs of old shoes that were discarded when the refugees went shopping.
The media are in full descent. The Sydney Morning Herald is at the Audubon Zoo, shooting a picture of the kookaburra that survived. Diane Sawyer is in the Lower Ninth Ward in a pressed white blouse and smart rubber boots. A reporter for Al-Jazeera Television is in Johnny White's Sports Bar in the French Quarter.
"In the Middle East we have sandstorms, the occasional stampedes at Mecca, but nothing like this," correspondent Mohammed Alami says between sips of Abita beer.
Because the city has no power or water, there's no hotel designated as the official media beehive. Instead, news companies have brought in fleets of recreational vehicles that they park on the streetcar tracks on Canal Street, between toppled palms. It looks an RVers' convention: Four Winds, Allegro, Sun Voyager, Sunseeker, and Fleetwood Excursion.
NPR is there, too. Marty Kurcias — the go-anywhere, do-anything audio engineer who's been to wars around the globe — has driven a 30-foot-long Majestic RV down from Washington. It's packed with extra batteries, minidiscs, sound cords, trail mix, canned peaches, cold beer, Gatorade, peanut butter, tuna fish (which we feed to abandoned cats), and a case of LeSueur Peas (which no one touches).
"Welcome to the NPR New Orleans bureau!" says Kurcias, whom we're all delighted to see.
My editor says she wants a story about house-to-house rescues. Kurcias has brought an inflatable dinghy and outboard motor with him, but I don't want to report and steer a boat at the same time. Determined to join a rescue, Hawke and I climb in the truck and find an entrance ramp to Interstate 10. The flooded metropolis looks like Venice with shotgun houses. We find the New Mexico Urban Search and Rescue team on the elevated westbound lane of I-10, working the sunken Gentilly neighborhoods near the intersection of Humanity and Arts Streets. "We've stopped bringing them food and water. A lot of people are deciding to come out," says team leader Tom Romero.
The story has changed in the past few days. All the stranded refugees have been bused out of the city. Rescuers are trying to talk the holdouts into leaving because the water has gone toxic. An infectious, vile-smelling brew of sewage, chemicals, and decomposing tissue covers a hundred square miles of the metropolitan area. We try not to touch it. When some of the black water splashes on Hawke's ankle, a paramedic warns her, "Ma'am, if you don't decontaminate, you're gonna get cholera." It's an exaggeration, but she appreciates his concern and consents to an ammonia wash.
All day we ask boatmen if we can accompany them, and all day they refuse. They're on contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and FEMA's policy is no ride-alongs. FEMA's policy is also to discourage all unofficial, civilian rescuers — which chaps the Cajuns to no end. By late afternoon, I'm angry that I've missed the story, and we start back to Canal Street. I slow at the Elysian Fields exit and spot a boat pulling up to the concrete ramp. Hawke hops out and runs over to chat up the captain. She shoots me a thumbs-up.
Minutes later, we're hanging on to an airboat as it floats down the boulevard, steering wide to avoid submerged street signs. The boat owner is Jim Osborne, a mail carrier who towed the craft from Fort Pierce, Florida, to help out. The rescuers are Bryan French, a 25-year-old rookie with the New Orleans Police Department, and Dan Hannigan, 27, a policeman in Toledo, Ohio. Both muscular, with short-cropped hair and dark glasses, they grew up together as best friends in Perrysburg, Ohio. As soon as Hannigan saw the disaster unfolding in New Orleans, he drove down to help out his buddy. They're armed with Glock and SIG Sauer handguns and an AR-15 assault rifle. Cut off from his supervisor, French had been lone-wolfing it since the storm. Before Hannigan arrived, French figures he and another New Orleans officer rescued a couple of hundred people.
Osborne steps on the throttle and pushes the steering stick left. The Cadillac engine roars, the big prop spins, and the boat skims into French's Fifth District, the Upper Ninth Ward. Up to this point, I've seen the devastation only from dry land. We're finally in the drowned neighborhoods, and the scene is more hellish and surreal than I imagined.
Block after block of small, funky independent businesses are ruined: Dee Gee's Fashions, the Paradise Lounge, Shanghai Restaurant, Total Barber Shop, Jazz It Up Car Wash and Tire Repair. Hungry dogs lick at empty MRE packets and pace on front stoops, waiting anxiously for their owners to return.
The detritus of working-class homes bobs in the dark water: sofa cushions, whiskey bottles, a child's slide, a refrigerator, a wicker chair, a garbage can, a home owner. The body of a large black man in a dark T-shirt is splayed facedown on the roof of a small sedan. His corpse, the fifth they've spotted in two hours, has swollen prodigiously in the torpor, and his limbs are in rigor mortis as though he were skydiving.
Officer French says into his radio, "Seventeen twenty-two Franklin Avenue, twenty-nine on top of a vehicle. It's an unclassified death."
We push forward through the stinking black water onto St. Roche Street, and the officers spot two men on the second-story balcony of a stucco house. They smoke hand-rolled cigarettes and watch the lawmen warily. A third emerges from the fetid, waist-deep water and climbs the steps to the balcony.
"If you don't get treated from being in the water, you will die. You will die, sir," French yells up at them.
The men sit and smoke and watch us. They all appear to be high. "I want to go to my sister's in Atlanta; that's what I'm hoping," says one.
"This is the deal, guys — the water might be here for 80 more days, and they might call off rescue in the next day or two," French continues.
Another boat, this one full of Border Patrol agents in green uniforms, has floated up, and they second the policeman's entreaties. "Any significance to you stayin' there?" an agent asks wearily.
"We want to be here for our moms," says one of the men, without further explanation.
Hannigan groans. "Well, Mom ain't on an airboat," he shouts. "She ain't comin' here."
The trio has no intention of leaving. Dusk is falling, and nobody wants to be out after dark on these lawless canals with floating bodies. The boatman guns the engine, and we ease out of District Five. The officers deftly hold up electric lines so we can pass under them.
"I bet there are warrants out on those guys, and they don't want to go with cops. This is a huge drug haven — shootings every night," French says.
Hannigan shakes his head and adds, "All you can do is pray for the ones that decided to stay. They have their own reasons."
The postman pulls his airboat onto the trailer. French and Hannigan hop onto the ramp. New Orleans cops are notoriously skittish around the media, and after being on the boat with them, I figure it's a good time to ask about the imploded department: "Why did so many New Orleans police desert after the storm?"
"You gotta remember, these officers who turned in their badges — a lot of them lost everything," French says. "Their families said, ‘I'm not coming back; I can't deal with this.' The stress — I've never seen anything like it. I can compare it to a living hell. I wouldn't and couldn't go through this again, but I stuck it out because I felt I had to be there for my fellow officers and the city. That's what I took an oath to do."
That night, we cook spaghetti on the propane range in the RV, and I write my story at the little folding table. At 3:00 a.m., we wake up Kurcias, and he sets up the sat phone outside on the sidewalk. With no time for an edit, we call Record Central, and the editor listens to the story as I'm filing. The mixer has one hour to produce a nine-minute story before MorningEdition goes on the air. This is called pushing deadline.
It's impossible to sleep after the adrenaline rush of a tight deadline, so I grab a beer and lay down on a blanket in the bed of my pickup. The boulevard is silent, and I admire the shining stars in the sky over the darkened city. The enormous and garish Harrah's casino — bitterly opposed by city preservationists when it was built — looms unlit to my left. On my right, young guardsmen on night watch sit in front of a looted shopping mall, cussing and smoking. This is the first military occupation of New Orleans since federal troops marched out of the city in 1877 after Reconstruction.
Fatigue creeps in, and the mind drifts. All week I've had a hard time remembering this is one of America's great cities. I expected to see refugees living in squalor in Honduras. I expected to see looters roam the streets of Baghdad. I expected martial law in Kosovo. How can this be happening in my own country?
And how is it that I'm here? After being a reporter for 26 years, I'm still not accustomed to parachuting into other people's grief: An Afghan girl beaten by the Taliban. An Albanian woman raped by Serbs. A Texas prison inmate sentenced to death. An aged Mexican street musician climbing onto a subway to make 45 cents in tips. I have a permanent case of survivor's guilt.
The whole Katrina disaster has been a hellish episode of Survivor. The setting is postdiluvian New Orleans. But it wasn't the death and dying that was so terrifying; it was the vision of society stripped bare and left to fend for itself. It was a candid camera on the soul. It was the ageless story of ourselves, with all our courage and corruption. And like a crew member on a reality series, I got to leave at quitting time. I could walk off camera, get in my truck, and drive to Baton Rouge. They couldn't.
As I lie in the truck, something else bothers me. On no previous story had I been unable to find words to describe the immensity of a tragedy. In a profession for which overstatement is a bylaw, it's impossible to exaggerate Katrina.
For the past week, I've been thinking about a quote I encountered several years ago while doing research on the Great Galveston Storm of 1900, which killed some 6,000 people and destroyed that graceful coastal city. Now I finally understand it. An African American woman named Annie McCullough had recorded an oral history about the terrible hurricane she survived as a girl. Then in her nineties, she tried to describe the things she lived through 70 years ago:
"Aw, it was an awful thing. You want me to tell you, but no tongue can tell it."
From the Epilogue of Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions: Travels with an NPR Correspondent by John F. Burnett. Reprinted by permission from Rodale Books. © 2006.